Willoughby: Real silver produced profits sometimes for Aspen prospectors, but fake silver seldom did
September 23, 2017
Aspen's prospectors discovered all kinds of minerals, everything from asbestos to zinc. But some resources, such as uranium, did not exist in sufficient quantities for miners to make a profit. The availability of one mineral, manganese, teetered on a line between "worth shipping" and "leave it in the ground." Adding insult to lack of profit, manganese teased silver miners with a tempting color and gleam that vainly roused hope.
In 1889 the nation produced about 25,000 tons of manganese. A large supply came out of the Lake Superior area. The mineral was used in steel production and the ore also held iron. The combination boosted profits.
Colorado's manganese ore also included iron. Production kicked off when steel manufacture began in Pueblo. In 1904 a ton of manganese ore fetched $228 in today's dollars. Leadville processed high-grade ore and shipped some to Chicago, because The Illinois Steel Works owned Leadville's major producer, the Catalpa mine.
Leadville shipped the balance to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., CF&I. An enterprise of John D. Rockefeller, CF&I operated the Pueblo steel mill, the only one in the West for many years. During the early 1900s Leadville produced many tons of manganese destined for pig iron, shipped on down the line for refinement.
Aspen's manganese, called "black manganese" because of its color, existed in small pockets. Often miners found it alongside silver, in close proximity to the Leadville limestone formation. During the 1880s miners explored a vein of mineral for about 200 feet on the north side of Queens Gulch. The vein turned out to be mostly manganese and disappointed the miners who sought silver. But later, the claim revealed its true value as the site for the tunnel entrance and mill of the modern Midnight Mine.
Late in the 1890s representatives of CF&I scouted the Aspen area for iron and manganese. They became interested in iron deposits above Ashcroft and figured they could run a railroad spur up the Castle Creek valley to mine the ore. They also looked at claims near the confluence of Snowmass Creek and the Roaring Fork River. A three-foot thick vein there offered promise, with ore that ran 70 percent manganese. Even so, that lode, called the Manganese and Calcium, held insufficient quantities to make mining pay off at the time.
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During the 1890s Chili undercut the value of American manganese and took on much of the world production. But war has a way of making otherwise unprofitable minerals profitable. Manganese is used for hardening steel, and hardened steel is used in war machinery, bullets and weapons. World War I slowed transportation of the metal and the price shot up.
The height of manganese-related excitement hit Aspen in 1916. An Aspen Times headline said, "Wild rush to Pitkin County manganese fields to stake claims." The CF&I claims near Snowmass Creek and areas near it reopened. Investors expected profits to more than double, $520 per ton.
Nevertheless, at that price manganese delivered even fewer profits than lead or zinc, and it made sense to mine those minerals only when the ore also contained silver. As they say, all that glitters is not silver.
Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.